The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
10 WILD NEW STAYS IN BRITAIN ‘We did the classic Grand Designs thing’
1 SKOOLIE STAYS, EAST SUSSEX ‘We wanted to share our off-grid lifestyle’
REST + ‘We create escapes in the wild where you can totally switch off ’
A great American road trip gave Ruth and Guy Wimpory an idea for how to make their liberated lifestyle work back home in Sussex.
“We weren’t ready to settle down into suburban lives of school runs and 9 to 5s in Brighton,” says Ruth, “so we decided to take our kids to the US and spend a year travelling around in a converted American school bus. It was just to do something different for a while, teach the kids on the road, refresh things a bit. Travel always helps you reassess where you are.
“So we found someone to help us buy and convert a bus, then in 2019 flew out to Salt Lake City to pick it up. We clocked up 14,000 miles, drove through 20 states, camping in national parks and on forestry land, in deserts and on beaches. It was incredible – but what we absolutely loved, most of all, was living in a bus.
“When Covid-19 hit, we went into lockdown on a homestead outside Savannah, owned by a couple who live on a Skoolie – as US people call converted school buses – with other bus owners. It was a real mix. We isolated together, had movie nights and yoga sessions, and helped out with work on other buses and around the homestead.
“After a year we sold our bus and flew home, but we didn’t want the journey to end. We thought maybe we could bring back a piece of the off-grid lifestyle we’d had in America – living without all the devices, reading more, getting out and about with the kids – and we wanted to share it with people, to show that you can live off-grid and still be really comfortable.
“So with the help of the friends we’d made in America, we shipped over a retired bus from Florida to its new home on the South Coast: Black Robin Farm, owned by Eastbourne Council. The location is very rural and idyllic – you can see the sea from the bus.
“This time we converted it ourselves. We did the woodwork, repurposed and recycled wherever we could, tried to blend a bit of old and new, a bit of America and England. It was a real labour of love, using all the things we’d learned from our year away – how to not only make it comfortable, but also sustainable. It’s got solar power, water-saving technology and a compost loo.
“As soon as we opened last summer, everyone went mad for it. I think people book for the wow factor of staying in an iconic American school bus, but what they love is the story behind our Skoolie – lots of guests say they feel inspired to do something similar. They appreciate the detail and effort that’s gone into converting it, as well as the opportunity to get away from everything: sitting around the log fire and chatting, going for windy walks on Beachy Head nearby.
“It’s about taking a step out of your life for a few days, rejuvenating yourself. And occasionally, when it’s not booked, we get to stay in it ourselves.” Skoolie Stays, sleeps four, from £310 for two nights, with Host Unusual (hostunusual.com/categories/hostunusual/skoolie-stays)
Do what you love, they say – which is how entrepreneur James Roupell came to walk away from his successful business and build a handful of smart, modern cabins hidden away in the Shropshire hills.
“My wife and I spent the first couple of years of our relationship staying in canal boats and treehouses and yurts,” he says, “seeking out increasingly unusual and secluded accommodation. We were both grieving our fathers, and we found solace in leaving the city – we’d always return feeling better, ready to take life on again with renewed vigour.
“I’d spent years stressed, running a toy business – I’d been on Dragons’ Den, sold 300,000 units, distributed in 26 countries – and yet, despite the relative success, I felt unsatisfied. With losing my father came this introspection, and thinking we should be using every moment doing something we are passionate about – so what am I doing running a brand that doesn’t align with my values?
“Here I am, shouting at my girlfriend for not putting a plastic bottle in the recycling bin, and yet I’m selling thousands of polyester toys made in China. So when a distributor offered to take over the business, I realised it was the right time to move on to the next thing.
“I liked the idea of creating a consolidated staycation brand – a network of high-quality escapes in the wild, where you can totally switch off. After a long search for the perfect location, we launched our first site in Shropshire last year, with views of the Clee Hills. Now we have six cabins, each set in its own space across the 5,000-acre site so you won’t see your neighbour or hear a single background noise other than birdsong and the leaves on the trees.
“The cabins were made locally from reclaimed and sustainable sources, and my mother designed the interiors, with a focus on high-end comfort and cosiness, but also minimalist and uncluttered. There’s a coffee grinder, a small axe to chop wood and enough solar power for the lights – but there’s no TV, no Wi-Fi, and no power sockets.
“By providing that space in nature to switch off, you leave with a less cluttered mind, feeling re-energised, restored and reconnected with each other.
“It’s all about balance. From the dark days of losing Dad, I didn’t think I’d see the light shining quite so brightly as I do now.”
Rest + Wild cabins, sleep two (and a baby or a dog), from £160 a night; restandwild.co
Finance high-flyers Ffion Francis and Ollie Speck moved to an Essex backwater during lockdown, planted a vegetable garden, dug a pond and hand-built the most gorgeous rustic retreat – with the help of YouTube videos.
“Ollie and I met in Canary Wharf, where we both worked in banking,” says Ffion. “We were putting in long hours, and barely had time to see each other, so when we both took voluntary redundancy two months apart, having not been particularly happy for a few years, we thought, what’s next? We knew we didn’t want to go back to our careers, and needed to take some time out and leave London and the financial burden of a large mortgage behind.
“So we took a long trip together: India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, housesitting in the middle of the rice paddies in Bali, Colombia, Costa Rica… Then Covid hit. I had to jump on the last flight home, the day before lockdown. We ended up moving into Ollie’s old family home in Essex, which had just become empty, with the idea of building a hut to rent out as a business. There are three acres of land which had been neglected for many years, so it needed a lot of work. We set up a vegetable garden, and adopted ex-caged hens so we could be more self-sufficient, and we dug out the pond for wild swimming.”
“We did the classic Grand Designs thing – I went from banking to building a shepherd’s hut,” says Ollie. “Tradespeople were so busy that I decided to give it a go myself, and did everything from scratch – the wiring, the plumbing… I think you can pretty much do anything after watching YouTube videos about it. We clad it with larch and reclaimed wood – I spent many hours with a blow-torch burning endless amounts of wood, to give it that charred look, which was fun to start with but became quite a chore by the end. But it’s been a good experience.”
“Since we opened in October,” Ffion continues, “guests have come to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and we’ve just had one couple come straight from their wedding on their minimoon. People like to come and just relax – primarily they’re looking for a getaway in nature. The pond is beautiful right now. And there’s a wood-fired outdoor bath, so you can sit in it and look out across the fields, or watch shooting stars in the evening, while owls hoot in the trees. We’re surrounded by farmland, so even though we’re not very far from Colchester, Frinton and Dedham, it’s a rural setting, and you feel very isolated here. It’s a complete reset.
“We’re about to start building another hut, overlooking the pond – just one more, to keep that feeling of seclusion and privacy. We’ve got a baby coming at the end of the month, so we’ll have to see how much Ollie can get done in between changing nappies.”